Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation

The state has used a kind and gentle, collaborative approach to bring all the players on board.  

By Mary Lou Jay  

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In just over two years, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) expects to complete its transition from the traditional paper contract documents and 2D paper project plans to a standardized digital delivery system. The new system will incorporate the use of 3D, data-rich models.  

Its Digital Delivery Directive 2025 — “3D2025” — originates from a strategic plan. As part of the plan, the agency produced a five-year roadmap. The action plan includes the necessary modeling requirements, processes and workforce training needed to help the agency reach their goal of going digital by 2025. To make the transition to complete digital delivery as smooth as possible, the department conducted early outreach to everyone who would be impacted. The agency engaged in conversation with road and bridge contractors, technical consultants, its eleven district offices, other state departments like the Department of Environmental Protection, and transportation agencies like the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.  

“We realized that this is going to be a team effort; we’re not just shoving this down contractors’ throats or saying that this is a mandate, something you have to do,” said Allen Melley, co-lead for Digital Delivery Directive 2025. 

In 2019, as PennDOT was developing the strategic plan and roadmap, it invited all of these stakeholders to two and a half day meetings in four different regions of the state. The goal of the meetings was to explain what the agency wanted to do, why it wanted to do it and what it hoped to accomplish by moving to digital delivery. PennDOT representatives came to these meetings prepared to listen as well as to present. 

“We brought in a wide breadth of knowledge and perspectives, gathering feedback to develop the strategic plan,” Melley said.  

Since that time, PennDOT has continued to welcome feedback and remain open to adjustment. For example, when formulating the bridge and construction modeling requirements, the agency held focus groups with contractors and consultants. 

“If we’re putting too much detail on something in the 3D model, or not including enough detail, we need to know that. They are the subject experts in their areas,” Melley told InfraTalk America.   

Small steps for transitioning 

PennDOT is taking an incremental approach to developing and deploying this digital delivery system. They began the transition by implementing the technology on pilot projects. 

In 2022, when the focus was on developing roadway modeling, PennDOT introduced aspects of 3D modeling on two projects. The department eliminated the separate cross-section documents that contractors would normally receive and provided training on how to access information in the model. 

“Anything that the contractor would have seen on the cross section, they now have to go into the model to get. It’s a first step into modeling, so it’s not overwhelming all at once,” said Melley.  

The department decided not to provide both versions of these projects — the separate cross section and the 3D model — because people tend to rely on what they’re used to and resist moving in a new direction. In these cases, contractors had no choice. In addition, by requiring contractors to try out the model, PennDOT gained valuable feedback. This data will help the agency refine and improve its procedures, Melley said.  

This year PennDOT is working on bridge modeling. This has only increased the complexity of the digital models. For a bridge project the agency is currently bidding, it has not included any separate structural plans. Contractors will be required to use the digital model. “All of the information that you would get on a structural plan is contained within the model of the structure,” said Melley. 

Since contractors may not know where to find the specific structural information, PennDOT has developed what it calls “a crosswalk plan.” This 2D plan shows an already existing structure, with sections color coded to provide guidance on where the information is now located. 

“If you’re looking for a chart, for example, the crosswalk plan will direct you to where you would find this information now – in the model, in the contract documents, or in the 2D detail,” Melley said. 

The crosswalk plan has been well received by the contractors who had requested the department provide this kind of detailed assistance.  

Highlighting the benefits of 3D modeling 

Although contractors, consultants and other involved parties are already using some digital tools in their own operations, moving completely to digital delivery can still be an intimidating prospect. Through its frequent interactions with these groups, PennDOT has been able to reinforce the benefits: improved efficiency, reduced costs, and fewer change orders thanks to more detailed, more accurate representation of the project. 

With 2D design plans, for example, contractors see a bridge and the roads surrounding them separately. But with a 3D digital model, “You’ll be able to see a bridge and a roadway interact, to see the conflicts. And when you move into the construction and the inspection portion of it, you’re going to have all of that information at your fingertips,” Melley said.  

PennDOT has also reminded contractors that the benefits of digital modeling will last long beyond the initial design and construction phase. At the end of each project, there will be an as-built model (a digital twin). This model will store information about all aspects of the project. For example, if a contractor needs to replace guardrail while repaving a stretch of road, they will be able to click on that feature in the model and learn the specifications of the existing guardrail. They will also be able to glean who the manufacturer was. 

If there are questions about why work was done a certain way, the model will make available the project notes. In the notes, the designer or contractor can explain the reasoning behind their decisions. For example, they can outline an obstacle that they may have encountered during construction.  

As time goes on, and more roads and bridges have 3D models, contractors should encounter fewer project disruptions. This is because they’ll be prepared with accurate, detailed information about the site.  

Any work that contractors do in later years will be added into the model. As a result, PennDOT should always have the most up-to-date data on any roads or bridges built using the digital delivery system. 

Although there will certainly be refinements and improvements made in the future, Melley said that PennDOT is on schedule with its implementation. That’s due, at least in part, to the work PennDOT has done to ensure its stakeholders have the resources they need to make the transition.